craft review by Becky Levine
I started Jason Reynolds’ Ghost on a weekend as I ate breakfast, and then I saw the morning pass as I kept reading and kept reading. Or, more accurately, I didn’t see the morning pass, because I was totally immersed in the book.
I love the story. But I love the hero even more. I fell in love with Castle Cranshaw, or—as he has nicknamed himself—Ghost. Ghost is a boy who has always known how to run, but didn’t know that you could actually learn how to do it better and faster. Or that you could learn to run toward something, instead of away.
Ghost was the reason I kept turning pages. And not only did I love him, I trusted him. Despite the fact that some of the choices he makes and the actions he takes are not the smartest or the kindest, I knew Ghost was a kid I wanted to follow through the book.
So, here at MG Lunch Break, when we have a response like that, we step back and look at the why. We look at what the author did to make us feel this way. Why did I like Ghost so much?
Because Reynolds nailed the voice. Ghost tells his story with the words and style of someone who is constantly exploring and explaining, who fully and openly shares with the reader his worldview, his beliefs, and—yes—his reasons behind those not-so-smart choices.
Voice through Style
Ghost’s narrative style is built on some of the most gorgeously crafted sentences that are so long they could qualify as run-on, if they didn’t use flawless grammar along with all the words. Right in the first chapter, Ghost tells us about his dad, who used to eat sunflower seeds and tell Ghost, “Sunflowers are all up in me, kid.”
But let me tell you, my dad was lying. Wasn’t no sunflowers growing in him. Couldn’t have been. I don’t know a whole lot about sunflowers, but I know the word sunflower is made up of two good words, and that man ain’t got two good words in him, or anything that any girl would like, because girls don’t like men who try to shoot them and their son. And that’s the kind of man he was.
Look at that fourth sentence, will you? It goes on and on and on. And you’re there with Ghost through the whole thing—you don’t get lost, you don’t get distracted. He draws you in and keeps you with him from the beginning to the end—the completely exposed and vulnerable honesty of the end.
Action: Pick a scene you’ve written and revise it, playing with sentence length. What do long sentences and short sentences do for your character’s voice?
Character through Voice
Even in Ghost’s external dialogue, with people he barely knows, his voice stays true to who he is. Ghost’s running coach asks him if he thinks fighting makes him tough. Ghost takes a little time to think about his answer and, when it does come, he’s not quite as smooth in his delivery as usual. But the words still roll and roll, and they still show him exploring—this time himself and his own behavior. First he tells Coach that beating up Brandon—the boy with whom he fought—doesn’t make him tough.
Coach moved the towel from his head to his neck. “So what does it make you, then?”
“I don’t know, but not tough.” I thought for a second. “Because for something to make you feel tough, you gotta be a little scared of it at first. Then you gotta beat it. But I wasn’t scared of Brandon at all. He’s just a big guy with a big mouth. That ain’t really all that scary to me.” I had been thinking about this when we were running around the track, warming up. In between Coach’s tips about form and all that stuff, my brain was kicking that question around.
Ghost is always kicking a question around. He is always digging deeper for understanding and for an explanation that will share that understanding. And the voice Reynolds has created for his hero goes a long, long way to painting that quality, that personality, on the page.
Change in Feelings, Change in Voice
As I started putting this all together, I wondered if there were any moments when Ghost doesn’t share, when the words don’t flow. And the answer was, yes, a few times. When he’s angry or embarrassed, when he’s telling a lie, and when he’s suffering the consequences of one of those bad choices. At one point, Ghost cuts off his high tops so they look more like the other kids’ running shoes, and his entire class laughs at him for it.
This is what Ghost manages to get out:
I wanted to break the desk.
Or flip it over.
Scream. Something. Anything.
Short. Choppy. Direct. The very opposite of Ghost’s normal voice.
Reynolds doesn’t overdo this. When short sentences occur, they pop off the page, and they do focus your attention on what’s happening, on the difference in how Ghost is feeling.
Action: Before you draft a new scene, write down six feelings your main character will have about the action and conflict. Now write the scene and see how the feelings impact your character’s voice.
Voice, for me, is magic. It is what creates the most full and layered characters, what captures us and keeps us happy prisoners, what gives the book that quality I, as a writer, want for my own stories. And Reynolds has wielded that magic beautifully.
Craft Book Recommendation: The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life, by Alicia Rasley
After years of reading long Victorian novels, Becky Levine worked in closed-captioning, where they basically paid her to get rid of words. Somehow, that early mash-up of story and editing led to the picture-books she writes today. Becky is the author of two books for Capstone Press and is a member of SCBWI. She lives in California’s Santa Cruz mountains and works as Grants Manager for a regional nonprofit. In her free time, Becky travels with her husband in their Vanagon, including frequent road-trips to visit their son, and knits very simple baby blankets.
Awesome review. Also, selfishly, this is well-timed, because this is something I’m struggling with for my WIP. Based on your review I will read Ghost and then come back to your review and try to pull out how Jason does this. Thanks!
The book sounds amazing. I love your section on short sentences. It’s such a powerful way to change the emotion of a scene.
[…] of the things that I think Reynolds does particularly well in Ghost. (See our craft review of voice in Ghost here.) Everything in bold italic is an excerpt from The Magic […]